By KNG ZHENG GUAN
Pictures by S.S. KANESAN and GLENN GUAN
The 26th Indonesia SEA Games was deemed one of the worst in history.
Right from the start, the Games was inundated with so many controversies, like a major delay in the completion of venues in the Jakabaring Sports City, Palembang, due to corruption.
Even on the day before the opening ceremony, workers could be seen scrambling to add finishing touches to several venues.
Indonesian SEA Games organiser INASOC seemed to be more interested in putting up a spectacular opening show and obtaining a huge gold medal haul than ensuring that the Games would go smoothly.
The opening ceremony was indeed spectacular, though. There was a dazzling fireworks display, and a variety of colourful cultural dances, complemented by a brilliant laser display that could have matched the Guangzhou Asian Games in China.
However, as flashy and magnificent the “show” was, the 26th Indonesia SEA Games will forever be marred by the deaths of two Indonesian supporters who were crushed during a stampede in the football final between Indonesia and Malaysia in Jakarta.
It is sad that the hosts would rather spend money and effort on making things look good than ensuring that basic arrangements like proper crowd control were in place.
Nevertheless, as the “rookie” in the Star Sports team, I was very much pumped up for my first major assignment overseas, and a multi-sports event at that.
As a sports enthusiast, I have always had my fair share of sporting event memories, and I grew up attending the 1998 Commonwealth Games and the 2001 SEA Games, both in Kuala Lumpur, with good memories.
I do not regret the opportunity handed me to cover the SEA Games in Palembang. In a way, it was a dream came true.
However, things did not start off smoothly.
When we touched down in Palembang on Nov 9, our team had a lot of problems with transportation. There was a lack of efficient public transport which made it hard for us to get from one place to another.
Then there was the issue of really bad Internet connection.
After getting local SIM cards and a portable modem device, we discovered that the Internet signal was virtually non-existent, especially in Jakabaring, which was located in what was considered the outskirts of a small town like Palembang.
The main media centre was also practically empty, with only a few chairs and tables. There was also no Internet access.
On the night of the opening ceremony, I rushed from the Gelora Sriwijaya – venue of the opening ceremony – to the media centre which was a good 5km away, in the rain and through a crowd of angry-looking locals who were denied entry, to file my story.
In case you didn’t know, Indonesia is an hour behind Malaysian time.
Still, all that was a valuable experience and things gradually improved over time during the Games.
Food stalls which were hardly seen in the first few days gradually found their way around the sporting venues, and eventually certain venues around Jakabaring even had stable Internet connections.
What was most pleasing and satisfying was the performance of the Malaysian athletes, given the circumstances they were in.
The Malaysian contingent returned home with its second best gold medal haul in an overseas games with 59 gold medals.
There were several standout stars among the Malaysian athletes who took part in the Games. Among them were synchronised swimming duo Katrina Ann Hadi and Shareen Png, who bagged five golds each, that pushed Malaysia to a clean sweep in all the events at stake.
Also in aquatics was the diving squad which took home seven out of the eight gold medals contested, while 16-year-old Christina Loh announced her presence on the big sporting stage by winning the women’s 50m breaststroke.
Former Formula One driver Alex Yoong, made a successful return to water skiing, 14 years after his last competition, by winning the men’s overall title. His sister Phillipa also won two golds in the women’s slalom and overall categories.
However, it was their pint-sized half sister Aaliyah Yoong Hanifah who made the biggest splash. At just eight years old, Aaliyah became the youngest ever gold medallist in SEA Games by winning the women’s waterski tricks event.
In athletics, usual suspects Noraseela Khalid, Roslinda Samsu, Lee Hup Wei, Tan Song Hwa and Lo Choon Sieng all delivered medals but it was the men’s 4x400m relay team that truly won the race of the year.
Arriving in Palembang just 48 hours before their event was scheduled to start, and initially not given any hope of winning, the quartet S. Kannathasan, P. Yuvaraaj, Schzuan Ahmad Rosely and Mohd Yunus Lasaleh defied the odds to take a stunning victory home.
It was a Games debut for three of them – Kannathasan, Schzuan and Yunus – and it was fantastic way to make their mark.
Of course, the biggest gold medal won by Malaysia was in football – deemed the mother of all golds.
Edging out Indonesia by penalties in a stadium filled with 100,000 passionate Indonesians in Jakarta was certainly no mean feat and coach Ong Kim Swee’s boys deserved much credit for their valiant effort.
I regret not being in Jakarta to experience the electrifying atmosphere and cover the event.
It was a long and tiring two weeks for us in Indonesia, but a fruitful one indeed. For me, it was certainly one heck of a ride.